The meaning of singing the Proper is that we can then sing the Mass, and not content ourselves with singing at Mass. The instructions for a “Sung Mass” (Missa Cantata) left no ambiguity in the 1958 Instructions for Sacred Music in the Liturgy (see de-musica-sacra-et-sacra-liturgia Ch. 25). One condition for “singing the Mass” to its full extent was the singing of the Proper. Another condition was that the priest chant the readings. These two conditions, requiring more work than seemed acceptable, fueled the rise of the “low Mass with hymn singing”: the congregation could get the help of instruments to sing rhythmic hymns at Low Mass, and the priest did not have to sing. A compromise easier to implement than actually learning to sing. The prevalence of the spoken-Mass-with-singing-interludes in our post Vatican II Masses is the continuation of this model. Read also “four hymn sandwich” on this topic.
But if we want to actually sing the Mass, we must sing the Proper. What are those? the Entrance chant (Introit), Responsorial or Gradual (after the first lesson), Alleluia before the Gospel, Offertory, and Communion, as defined in the Roman Gradual (in latin), or another chant setting of the English Antiphons of the Roman Missal (see Books, Books, Books for examples).
The Proper constitute the “third degree of participation”, defined in chapter 31 of the Vatican II Instructions on Sacred Music. The parts of the Mass when the whole assembly is fully invited to sing are the first and the second degrees of participation (dialogues, response, ordinary of the Mass).
For tools to practice singing the Proper, click on this link.
( Before singing the Proper, learn the responses and the Kyriales: Practice singing the Mass )
Singing the Proper also has great practical benefits for the music ministry in a parish. The two main advantages are:
- Neither the priest, the music director, a generous sponsor nor the best singer(s) in the parish decides what we sing at Mass. The Church gave us the Proper to sing the Mass. The Roman Gradual is the official songbook of the Church. Using what the Church gave us will remove a decision that often creates tension among parishioners, music ministers and/or parish staff. Could the Church know better? Singing the Proper will make you realize she does indeed. I have never encountered a priest or a liturgist who would argue against singing the Proper at Mass as long as they are well sung. An authoritative read on this topic is the recent pastoral letter from the Archbishop of Portland, and the paragraph titled “Preparation, not planning” (p.12): Sing to the Lord a New Song
- The Proper were written for the voice, not for instruments. If you are Catholic and were gifted by God with a decent singing voice, they were written for you. Embrace them. And give them back. My experience is that at most Masses we hear mostly instrumentally-supported music (metered hymns) because it has become easier for a pastor to rely on one instrumentalist (organist, pianist,…) than on singers. Especially if the instrumentalist is a paid employee. The pastor then delegate to this instrumental “music director” the management of the singing voices. But liturgical music is vocal by definition: holy texts carried by the human voice. Learning to sing the Proper at Mass is for a talented singer the “proper offering” and thanksgiving for the gift of singing, received from God.
- Liturgically, the position of a paid musician is a tricky one. Is liturgical music one’s only income? Is one directing, or just performing? Would one still participate in the Mass if unpaid? Does receiving pay disqualify for the “full, conscious and active participation” asked of the faithful? Each music minister must answer these questions for him/herself. In the economic model given to us by the Roman Gradual, the “order” is not related to wages. There are only Catholic singers who have sung the proper many times before, and Catholic singers who have sung them less often, or for the first time. Then, listening, there are those who need to prepare more and will sing them next year… (see “Preparation, not Planning” above). The proper have the edification of the faithful required of the Liturgy, (see SC #127) already built in.
- A common objection to learning to sing the proper is that there are many of them. Where to start? The proper repeat every liturgical cycle. So no effort in learning the proper will be wasted. Start slowly, humbly. Below is a practical way to prioritize:
- Introit (Entrance) and Communion antiphons are the easiest to learn, both musically and vocally. Our recommendation is to start with those. The liturgical year also gives us a few “Sequences” (Pentecost, Corpus Christi,..). Their hymn-like structure makes them another good place to start.
- Then, the Alleluia acclamation and the Offertory antiphons represent in general more of a challenge. The melismas demand good breath support and control. Singing the “Alleluia” will help you build that voice technique without the added challenge of the latin words.
- The Alleluia verses and Gradual, with many and sometimes long melismas, demand the vocal technique that experienced cantors spend many years developing. Trying to sing them too early can be frustrating. If so, re-focus on the Introits.
- Also, if singing in latin represents a challenge, simple propers in English will help you practice the coordination between the breath control, the voicing of clear vowels, and the clarity and intelligibility of the Word that always must be present in Gregorian Chant (examples at this link)